Palm Sunday: Chorus, "Lift up your heads" from Messiah

>> Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Palm Sunday, in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as many Anglican and Lutheran churches, palm fronds (or in colder climates some kind of substitutes) are blessed with an aspergilium outside the church building (or in cold climates in the narthex when Easter falls early in the year). A procession also takes place. It may include the normal liturgical procession of clergy and acolytes, the parish choir, the children of the parish or indeed the entire congregation as in the churches of the East. In Oriental Orthodox churches palm fronds are distributed at the front of the church at the sanctuary steps, in India the sanctuary itself having been strewn with marigolds, and the congregation processes through and outside the church. In many Protestant churches, children are given palms, and then walk in procession around the inside of the church while the adults remain seated.
The palms are saved in many churches to be burned the following year as the source of ashes used in Ash Wednesday services. The Roman Catholic Church considers the palms to be sacramentals. The vestments for the day are deep scarlet red, the color of blood, indicating the supreme redemptive sacrifice Christ was entering the city who welcomed him to fulfill- his Passion and Resurrection in Jerusalem.


Music for the Lenten Season: Pergolesi's Stabat Mater Dolorosa

>> Friday, March 26, 2010

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (4 January 1710 – 16 or 17 March 1736) was an Italian composerviolinist and organist. It is his Stabat Mater (1736), however, for male soprano, male alto, and orchestra, which is his best known sacred work. It was commissioned by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo (the monks of the brotherhood of San Luigi di Palazzo) as a replacement for the rather old-fashioned one by Alessandro Scarlatti for identical forces which had been performed each Good Friday in Naples. Whilst classical in scope, the opening section of the setting demonstrates Pergolesi's mastery of the Italian baroque 'durezze e ligature' style, characterized by numerous suspensions over a faster, conjunct bassline. The work remained popular, becoming the most frequently printed work of the 18th century, and being arranged by a number of other composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, who used it as the basis for his psalm Tilge, Höchster, meine SündenBWV 1083.  Information: Wikipedia

1. Manuscrit d'Ostuni (Plain chant).

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrimosa,
Dum pendebat Filius.

2. Stabat Mater dolorosa.

Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrimosa,
Dum pendebat Filius.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

Patrizia Bovi (Soprano).
Pino de Vittorio (Tenor).
Bernard Arrieta (Basse).

Dir. Olivier Schneebeli.


Happy 325th Birthday to J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite, BVW 1067

>> Sunday, March 21, 2010

Johann Sebastian Bach (German pronunciation: [joˈhan] or [ˈjoːhan zeˈbastjan ˈbax]) (31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] – 28 July 1750) (often referred to simply as Bach) was a German composer, organist, violist, and violinist whose ecclesiastical and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity. Although he did not introduce new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France.
Revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty, Bach's works include the Brandenburg concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the MagnificatThe Musical OfferingThe Art of Fugue, the English and French Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Cello Suites, more than 200 surviving cantatas, and a similar number of organ works, including the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now regarded as the supreme composer of the Baroque, and as one of the greatest of all time.

Information: Wikipedia

As my dear partner, Steph, so eloquently stated it, "When one hears such sounds, what can one say" 

Ton Koopman, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra play three movements from the Orchestral Suite, BVW 1067.


Music for the Lenten Season: He was despised from "Messiah"

>> Saturday, March 20, 2010

This is one of my favorite airs from Messiah. I must confess, however, that it didn't come to my mind to use for my Lenten series of posts until I saw this video of an angry group of tea-baggers mocking and scorning a man who claimed he had Parkinson's Disease, and who sat on the ground in counter-protest, supporting health care reform. It is not my wish to get into the political aspects or debate of that scene, for that is not my purpose in this forum. However I was struck by the cruelty of the scene--an innocent man accosted and scorned by a crowd of angry men and women who mocked and ridiculed him--and I was deeply touched. I was reminded of Jesus' words in Matthew when he said, "In so much as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have also done it unto me".

Anne Sophie von Otter gives one of the most touching performances of the air, He was despised, I have ever heard.

part one

part two


Ten reasons why I love Brahms: Reason #1: Opus 18, Intermezzos 1&2

>> Friday, March 19, 2010

Next to Mozart, Brahms is my favorite of the German composers, and most certainly my favorite of the Romantic Era German composers.

Johannes Brahms (pronounced [joːˈhanəs ˈbʁaːms]) (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897)
, was a German composer and pianist, one of the leading musicians of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg, Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene. In his lifetime, Brahms's popularity and influence were considerable; following a comment by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the Three Bs.

Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he gave the first performance of many of his own works; he also worked with the leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed many of his works and left some of them unpublished.

Brahms was at once a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. He was a master of counterpoint, the complex and highly disciplined method of composition for which Bach is famous, and also of development, a compositional ethos pioneered by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Brahms aimed to honor the "purity" of these venerable "German" structures and advance them into a Romantic idiom, in the process creating bold new approaches to harmony and melody. While many contemporaries found his music too academic, his contribution and craftsmanship have been admired by subsequent figures as diverse as the progressive Arnold Schoenberg and the conservative Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms's works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers.

The Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, are some of the most beloved items that the composer Johannes Brahms wrote for the solo instrument. Completed in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann, the collection was the second to last composition to be published during Brahms' lifetime.

The six pieces are:

* No. 1. Intermezzo in A minor. Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato
* No. 2. Intermezzo in A major. Andante teneramente
* No. 3. Ballade in G minor. Allegro energico
* No. 4. Intermezzo in F minor. Allegretto un poco agitato
* No. 5. Romance in F major. Andante
* No. 6. Intermezzo in E flat minor. Andante, largo e mesto

Evgeny Kissin plays Brahms intermezzos op.118 1,2. In Verbier festival 2007.

Information: Wikipedia


For the Love of the Fortepiano: Schubert - 3 Klavierstücke, D 946 Nr. 1 / Andreas Staier (fortepiano)

>> Thursday, March 18, 2010

For the next feature in my series on the fortepiano I wish to showcase a later, more developed fortepiano which was the type that Schubert used. The instrument featured in this recording is a replica of the Johann Fritz Hammerklavier. You will notice that the shape is more rounded and more like the pianos we are used to seeing, yet the sound is still a bit thinner at the top, although the lows are much deeper than in the earlier versions of the instrument. This Hammerklavier features a Viennese action, four pedals: una corda, moderator 1 and 2, forte. Triple-strung, except the last 4 tones. Length 245 cm. CC-g''''.

The Drei Klavierstücke D. 946, or "Three Piano Pieces", are solo pieces composed by Schubert in May 1828, just six months before his early death. They were conceived as a third set of four Impromptus, but only three were written. They were first published in 1868, edited by Johannes Brahms, although his name appears nowhere in the publication. In comparison with the D. 899 and D. 935 sets, these works are largely neglected and are not often heard in the concert hall or recorded.

No. 1 in E-flat minor

The main section (allegro assai) is in 2/4 time, though, as it is largely in triplets, the effect is like 6/8 for much of the time. It soon moves to E-flat major. As originally written, the piece had two trios, the first in B major, andante in alla breve time, and the second in A-flat major, andantino in 2/4. Schubert crossed out the second, but it is not infrequently played also, as heard in the recordings by Uchida and Pires.


A day for the Irish: She Moved Through the Fair

>> Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish tenor, Anthony Kearns sings the traditional folk tune, She Moved Through the Fair.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!

The song was first collected in Donegal by poet Padraic Colum and musicologist Herbert Hughes, and published by Boosey & Hawkes in London in a work entitled Irish Country Songs in 1909. The tune is in mixolydian mode. The lyrics were also published in Colum's 1922 book Wild Earth: and Other Poems (though the book doesn't mention their traditional origin).

A longer variant of the song is called Our Wedding Day. A related song, Out of the Window, was collected by Sam Henry, from Eddie Butcher of Magilligan, Northern Ireland, around 1930, and published in Henry's Songs of the People. Another song, I Once Had a True Love, also appears to be related, as it shares some lyrics with She Moved Through the Fair.

The traditional singer Paddy Tunney learned it in County Fermanagh and recorded it in 1965. Other singers who sang it in the 50s/60s were Dominic Behan and Anne Briggs. It was a popular song among members of the Traveler Community in Ireland by that time.

Fairport Convention recorded the song in 1968, adopting the style of the song from the influential traveling singer Margaret Barry, though she herself had learned it from a vinyl recording by Count John McCormack. Also of note are the recordings of the song by Alan Stivell in 1973.

Information: Wikipedia


Music for the Lenten Season: Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus

>> Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's setting of Ave verum corpus (K. 618) was written for Anton Stoll (a friend of his and Haydn's) who was musical coordinator in the parish of Baden, near Vienna. It was composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi and the autograph is dated 17 June 1791, less than six months before his death. It is only forty-six bars long and is scored for choir, stringed instruments, and organ. Mozart's manuscript contains minimal directions, with only a single sotto voce at the beginning. Mozart composed this motet while in the middle of writing his opera Die Zauberflöte, and while visiting his wife Constanze, who was staying at the spa near Baden. 


For the Love of the Fortepiano: Mozart Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major K. 488

>> Thursday, March 11, 2010

 Of all of the Mozart piano concerti, this one is probably my favorite for a number of reasons, not the least being the wonderfully moody Adagio movement, composed in the languid and love-sick key of F-sharp minor. This is a wonderful recording, featuring John Elliot Gardner and The English Baroque Soloists, with Malcolm Bilson on the fortepiano. Now if you have a good ear for tuning and you're thinking that this sounds more like A flat than A major, you would be partially correct. During Mozart's time, the instruments were tuned to about A-435 or so, as opposed to the A-440 we are accustomed to today. It's somewhere around a quarter of a step lower than the A we use.  However, there's something magical about the authentic effect from pieces from this era that are played on period instruments.

I'm posting all three movements of this incredible concerto simply because all three movements merit a listen. So sit back and enjoy.

The Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K. 488) is a musical composition for piano and orchestra written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was finished, according to Mozart's own catalogue, on March 2, 1786, around the time of the premiere of his opera, The Marriage of Figaro. It was one of three subscription concerts given that spring and was probably played by Mozart himself at one of these. The concerto is scored for piano solo and an orchestra consisting of one flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings.

It has three movements:
  1. Allegro in A major and common time.
  2. Adagio in F-sharp minor and 6/8 time (in later editions, the tempo is listed as Andante).
  3. Allegro assai in A and alla breve (in later editions, the tempo is listed as Presto).
The first movement is mostly joyful and positive with the occasional melancholic touches typical of Mozart pieces in A major.
The second, slow movement, in ternary form, is impassioned and somewhat operatic in tone. The piano begins alone with a theme characterized by unusually wide leaps. This is the only movement by Mozart in F sharp minor. The dynamics are soft throughout most of the piece. The middle of the movement contains a brighter section in A major announced by flute and clarinet that Mozart would later use to introduce the trio "Ah! taci ingiusto core!" in his opera Don Giovanni.
The third movement is a rondo, shaded by moves into other keys as is the opening movement (to C major from E minor and back during the secondary theme in this case, for instance) and with a central section whose opening in F sharp minor is interrupted by a clarinet tune in D major, an intrusion that reminds us, notes Girdlestone, that instrumental music at the time was informed by opera buffa and its sudden changes of point of view as well as of scene. 

Information: Wikipedia


For the Love of the Fortepiano: Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

>> Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The fortepiano has leather-covered hammers and thin, harpsichord-like strings. It has a much lighter case construction than the modern piano and, except for later examples of the early nineteenth century (already evolving towards the modern piano), it has no metal frame or bracing. The action and hammers are lighter, giving rise to a much lighter touch, which in good fortepianos is also very responsive.
The range of the fortepiano was about four octaves at the time of its invention and gradually increased. Mozart (1756–1791) wrote his piano music for instruments of about five octaves. The piano works of Beethoven (1770–1827) reflect a gradually expanding range; his last piano compositions are for an instrument of about six octaves. (The range of most modern pianos, attained in the 19th century, is 7⅓ octaves.)
Fortepianos from the start had devices similar to the pedals of modern pianos, but these were not always pedals; sometimes hand stops or knee levers were used instead.

Like the modern piano, the fortepiano can vary the sound volume of each note, depending on the player's touch. The tone of the fortepiano is quite different from that of the modern piano however, being softer with less sustain. Sforzando accents tend to stand out more than on the modern piano, as they differ from softer notes in timbre as well as volume, and decay rapidly.

Fortepianos also tend to have quite different tone quality in their different registers — noble and slightly buzzing in the bass, "tinkling" in the high treble, and more rounded (closest to the modern piano) in the mid range. In comparison, modern pianos are rather more uniform in sound through their range.

Information: Wikipedia

Trevor Stephenson plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on a traditional 18th-century replica fortepiano made by Norman Sheppard.  


Samuel Barber, March 9th, 1910: Happy 100th Birthday

>> Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Today we celebrate another milestone birthday of yet another great composer, Samuel Barber.

Samuel Osborne Barber II (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981) was an American composer of orchestral, opera, choral, and piano music. His Adagio for Strings is his most popular composition and widely considered a masterpiece of modern classical music. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his opera Vanessa and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. His Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a work for soprano and orchestra, was an acclaimed setting of prose by James Agee.

Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of Marguerite McLeod (née Beatty) and Samuel LeRoy Barber. At a very early age, Barber became profoundly interested in music, and it was apparent that he had great musical talent and ability. At the age of nine he wrote to his mother:

Dear Mother: I have written to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now, without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing .—Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.—Please—Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).

He wrote his first musical at the early age of 7 and attempted to write his first opera at the age of 10. He was an organist at the age of 12. When he was 14, he entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied piano, composition, and voice.

Barber was born into a comfortable, educated, social, and distinguished Irish-American family. His father was a doctor, and his mother was a pianist. His aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera and his uncle, Sidney Homer, was a composer of American art songs. Louise Homer is noted to have influenced Barber's interest in voice. Through his aunt, Barber had access to many great singers and songs.

Barber began composing seriously in his late teenage years. Around the same time, he met fellow Curtis schoolmate Gian Carlo Menotti, who became his partner in life as well as in their shared profession. At the Curtis Institute, Barber was a triple prodigy in composition, voice, and piano. He soon became a favorite of the conservatory's founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. It was through Mrs. Bok that Barber was introduced to his lifelong publisher, the Schirmer family. At the age of 18, Barber won the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University for his Violin Sonata (now lost or destroyed by the composer).

From his early to late twenties, Barber wrote a flurry of successful compositions, launching him into the spotlight of the classical music world. Many of his compositions were commissioned or first performed by such famous artists as Vladimir Horowitz, Eleanor Steber, Raya Garbousova, John Browning, Leontyne Price, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. When he was 28, Barber's Adagio for Strings was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini in 1938, along with his first Essay for Orchestra. The Adagio had been arranged from the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11. Toscanini had only rarely performed music by American composers before (an exception was Howard Hanson's Second Symphony, which he conducted in 1933). At the end of the first rehearsal of the piece, Toscanini remarked: " Semplice e bella " (simple and beautiful).

Barber served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, where he was commissioned to write his Second Symphony, a work he later suppressed. (It was released in a "Vox" recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Schenck). Composed in 1943, the symphony was originally titled Symphony Dedicated to the Air Forces and was premiered in early 1944 by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Barber revised the symphony in 1947, then destroyed the score in 1964. It was reconstructed from the instrumental parts.

Barber won the Pulitzer Prize twice: in 1958 for his first opera Vanessa, and in 1963 for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

Barber spent many years in isolation (eventually diagnosed with clinical depression) after the harsh rejection of his third opera Antony and Cleopatra (which he believed contained some of his best music. "This was supposed to have been my opera!" he said) The opera was written for and premiered at the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House on 16 September 1966. After this setback, Barber continued to write music until he was almost 70 years old. Barber's music in his later years would be lauded as reflective and contemplative, but without the morbidity or unhappiness of other composers who knew they had a limited time to live. The Third Essay for Orchestra (1978) was his last major work, and critics received it as having all the vigor and imagination of his earlier works.

Barber died of cancer in 1981 in New York City at the age of 70. He was buried in Oaklands Cemetery in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Information: Wikipedia

The piece I have featured is the first movement from Barber's Violin Concerto, played here by violinist Giora Schimdt, with the Israel Philharmonic, Itzhak Perlman, conducting.


For the love of the Fortepiano: Mozart Concerto in E flat for two fortepianos, Andante

>> Sunday, March 7, 2010

So today, as I promised, I open a series on the fortepiano, featuring concertos, sonatas, and other works that were composed by various early composers specifically for the fortepiano. I will caution you, if you've never heard a fortepiano, you'll be a little taken aback by the "tinnier" sound, but what you are hearing is actually what Mozart, Haydn, & Beethoven heard when they composed their works for these instruments. This is living history--music played on the instruments for which it was composed.

The first feature is the Andante Movement of Mozart's Concerto in E flat for two fortepianos.

Concerto in E flat major for Two Pianos KV 365, also known as Piano Concerto No. 10, was the last of Mozart’s piano concertos written in Salzburg, before he left for Vienna. He composed it for his sister Nannerl and himself, and right from the start, it is obvious that she was also a gifted keyboard performer. In this recording, the piece is performed in its two versions: the original from 1779, with a small orchestra, and the other from 1782 with an extended orchestra, which deservedly gives it a certain grandeur. The work is built in three movements and is challenging for both soloists. The parts for the two pianos are equally assigned and Mozart was careful to divide up the most striking and virtuosic passages evenly between the two solo players. The first movement, Allegro, opens with a long, ambitious orchestral introduction. Both pianos finally enter together, briefly alternating introductory phrases, as if exchanging ideas with each other, to then join again in the first theme. A second theme appears afterwards, more dramatic, giving briefly the impression that something bad might be about to happen, but this never takes place. The orchestra puts an end to it by repeating the opening and leading the movement to its finish, a beautifully fluid cadenza and coda. This is brilliantly delivered by Alexei Lubimov, who plays piano 1, and Ronald Brautigam, who plays piano 2. It is all done in a suitably witty, playful and charming manner and one can imagine two siblings performing and enjoying themselves together. This fact was natural for both Wolfgang and Nannerl, who were used to performing together from a very young age but who also understood and liked each other on a personal level. The musical rapport between Lubimov and Brautigam is already present in this first movement and does justice to the Mozart siblings.

In the second movement, Andante, slow and refined, they continue the playful dialogue as if engaging in a healthy, joyful competition. After the introductory theme, a minuet, by the orchestra, the same theme appears in the pianos, divided into two solo passages to allow the soloists to demonstrate their skills individually. The two pianists soon seem to flow together again, as the movement progresses, nicely leading and accompanying each other, beautifully alternating with the orchestra though it suitably stays in the background allowing the two keyboard performers to shine. This movement finishes almost abruptly, to take us into the finale, Rondeau, Allegro, wonderfully scored by Mozart to the instruments of his day. It has such size and power that one cannot help but wonder what he would have achieved with modern day grand pianos. Again, Lubimov and Brautigam, excel and deliver the piece perfectly, with rhythmic drive and equal elegance both in the lyrical graceful passages and in the exuberant return to the main rondo theme. They left me enchanted, wishing that I could have been present to participate in such musical joy.

Margarida Mota-Bull


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